Saturday, January 2, 2010

Devil’s Dictionary of Pop I

A short list of caustic aphorisms inspired by Ambrose Bierce (pictured), who wrote the first Devil’s Dictionary (1911).

British Invasion: Sound bite, descriptive of a marketing phenomenon as much as an actual movement.

Acid Rock: Sound bite, once (mistakenly) used to refer to any song that referred to drugs; no longer an especially useful collocation, for which we can be thankful.

Bubblegum: Psychedelic rock with its objectionable (drug) elements removed; the contemporary equivalent of a fat-free product.

Groovy: Antiquated term for anything about which the speaker expressed approbation; now déclassé, for which we can be thankful.

Rock Festival: Once the name for the logistical nightmare of holding a sock hop outdoors. Legendary for the wasteful expenditure of non-renewable natural resources, now highly impractical.

Schlock Rock: Any rock music that is considered “trash,” as long as one understands there is worthwhile or valuable schlock, and actual schlock.

Jam Session: Another name for noodling, meaning to play without purpose or direction. Intoxicants are essential.

Space Rock: See Schlock Rock.

Country Rock: Dismissed by the late Gram Parsons as “plastic dry-fuck.” See also Schlock Rock.

45: Antiquated music storage technology in the form a vinyl record 7” in diameter, typically with a song on each side. Now repurposed as coasters.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Blue Moon

Roughly every four weeks, or about every twenty-eight days, a full moon rises, which normally means there are twelve full moons a year. But last month, there was a full moon on December 2—and another last night, on December 31. The second full moon in the same month is conventionally referred to as a “blue moon,” the source of the expression, “Once in a blue moon.” Since a blue moon occurs only every two to three years, there are therefore only forty or so blue moons in any given century. It also means that the year that features a blue moon has thirteen moons, as did 2009, for instance. Has the association of the number thirteen with the blue moon led to the popular superstition that a blue moon is a sign of bad luck, or at least some sort of misfortune?

Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” released by Columbia Records in 1947, is a conventional country (hillbilly) ballad that speaks of the sorrow of heartbreak:

Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and proved untrue.
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and left me blue.

It was on a moonlight night, the stars were shining bright,
And they whispered from on high, your love had said goodbye.
Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining,
Shine on the one that’s gone and said goodbye.

As is clear, the song isn’t about a blue moon in the conventional sense—rather, it puns on the conventional meaning of a blue moon—but is an instance of the so-called pathetic fallacy, the description of inanimate natural objects in a manner that attributes to them human emotions, sensations, and feelings. John Ruskin coined the term “pathetic fallacy,” and used as an example of it the lines from Kingsley’s Alton Locke:

They rowed her in across the rolling foam —
The cruel, crawling foam.

George P. Landow explains:

According to Ruskin, grief has so affected this speaker’s mind, so distorted his vision of the world, that he attributes to the foam the characteristics of a living being. In so doing he tells us more about his state of mind, his interior world, than he does about the world which exists outside his mind, and it is this psychological truth that moves and delights the reader. The distorted version of reality does not itself please us, but we can ignore it, for “so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley’s above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow.”

But when Elvis got hold of the song, he read it aberrantly, no longer as a ballad. He transformed “Blue Moon of Kentucky” into a song, not of loss, but of love regained. In the process, he also invented rockabilly, which, as Michael Jarrett observes, “was to country music as bebop was to swing.” For rockabilly “signaled a paradigm shift: not harmony and melody, but rhythm and sound—echo from a twangy guitar, slapped bass, pounding piano, or a dixie-fried voice—became the raison d'être of popular music” (Sound Tracks, p. 162).

Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

So asks the singer of this venerable Frank Loesser tune, covered many times over the years, but first recorded by Kay Kyser and His Orchestra in 1947. Issued toward the end of Kyser's career and at the beginning of the bebop era, it has a characteristically fine vocal by Harry Babbitt, backed by The Campus Kids (consisting of, at the time, I believe, by Gloria Wood, Loulie Jean Norman, Diane Pendleton, Charlie Parlato, and Jud Conlon). Sweet, romantic, and old-fashioned, the song was issued at the end of the Swing Era, which would be all but snuffed out by the recording ban that began early in 1948 and lasted for almost a year.

Incidentally, Gloria Wood, one of “The Campus Kids” backing group on this recording, achieved fame by going on to record many classic jingles for TV commercials, among them the jingles for “Chicken of the Sea” and “Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco Treat” commercials. Covered many times by many different artists, I was unable to find Kyser’s recording of “What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?” on the web, but it is available as a download on iTunes and at

So what are you doing New Year’s Eve?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cat People

There is a famous quotation attributed to Albert Schweitzer, “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” If you have to ask what Schweitzer means, to lift a phrase from Louis Armstrong, you’ll never know. At the conclusion of his Tristes Tropiques, Claude Levi-Strauss speaks of the human experience of nature, referring to “the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity, and spiritual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one sometimes exchanges with a cat.” If only one could approach the vicissitudes of life with the calmness and serenity of a cat.

While it is not precisely clear when the word “cat” began to used to refer to another person, most certainly it emerged from American jazz culture. Bob Yurochko observes:

Another phenomenon that rose from bebop [in the 1940s] was a new language or slang used by musicians called “bop talk.” Musicians communicated with each other with words like “hip,” “cool,” “man,” “cat,” or “dig” to form their own lexicon, which became part of the jazz musician’s heritage. Boppers became so aloof that many of their social and musical antics were largely exaggerated, finding much disfavor elsewhere in musical circles. (A Short History of Jazz 103)

To be fair, many of these words were probably invented or perhaps popularized by Louis Armstrong, as Gary Giddens observes in his book Satchmo. To call someone a “cool cat” became a statement of approbation. (Incidentally, a “hepcat,” in Forties bebop culture, was any person who admired, or perhaps played, jazz and swing.) Robert S. Gold calls the word “cool” the “most protean of jazz slang terms” and meant, among other things, “convenient . . . off dope . . . on dope, comfortable, respectable, perceptive, shrewd—virtually anything favorably regarded by the speaker” (A Jazz Lexicon, 65). Since the word “cat” was so strongly associated with jazz culture, as well as the expression “cool cats,” there developed, in comics and cartoons, the practice of using anthropomorphized cats as symbols of jazz musicians. Bob Clampett’s cartoon “Tin Pan Alley Cats” (1943), for instance, features a caricature of jazz musician Fats Waller as a cat – see a discussion of the cartoon here.

Hence it follows that not every song about a cat (or kitten, or pussycat) is really about a cat of the feline sort.

Some Cat (As Opposed To Scat) Tunes:
The Beatles – Leave My Kitten Alone
Bent Fabric [Bent Fabricius-Bjerre] and His Piano – Alley Cat
David Bowie – Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Harry Chapin – Cat’s in the Cradle
Petula Clark – The Cat in the Window (The Bird in the Sky)
The Coasters – Three Cool Cats
Elton John – Honky Cat
The Grateful Dead – China Cat Sunflower
Tom Jones – What’s New Pussycat?
The Kinks – Phenomenal Cat
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Nashville Cats
Ted Nugent – Cat Scratch Fever
The Rolling Stones – Stray Cat Blues
Al Stewart – Year of the Cat
The Stray Cats – Stray Cat Strut
Norma Tanega – Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


There’s an old rule of thumb in the film business, “Never take your name off a film.” The reason behind this adage is simple: If the film turns out to be great, you’re considered brilliant. If the film flops, it is quickly forgotten, meaning nobody will remember it, and therefore your involvement in it. The same logic dominates the field of rock criticism, for no rock critic worth his salt wants to miss the boat, that is, wants to fail to miss The Next Big Thing—to condemn the artist or band that might turn out to be the next Elvis or Velvet Underground. Anxious critics therefore praise everything, because anything might be The Next Big Thing, and who wants to be wrong? It is therefore easy to praise bands such as Mudhoney and artists such as Fiona Apple, because if you’re right, you’re a genius, and if you happen to be wrong, few will remember. Ours is the age of the timid critic, whom seldom expresses indignation about anything. For who can claim that posterity will not one day validate everything?

Max Ernst called this tendency to praise everything “overcomprehension,” and it dominates the field of rock criticism. In the history of rock, there have been bands and artists that have been consistently subject to “overcomprehension”—so-called “critical darlings” or “critics’ faves”—contemporary examples would include Lou Reed, for instance, or P. J. Harvey. The latter artist avers she grew up listening to John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, and Captain Beefheart—in other words, impeccable credentials. And the former figure, well, he was a member of VU. But perhaps the better way to become a critics’ fave, other than to invoke the proper artistic inspirations, is to be easily amenable to fashionable critical ideas, such as “schizophonia,” “recontextualization,” “grafting,” and so on. Critical endorsements typically employ the language of fixed-form expressions, such as “Beatles-like melodies,” “Byrds-like harmonies,” “the psychedelic experience of early Pink Floyd,” “the appeal of vintage British pop,” “the turbulent grunge of Nirvana,” “pioneering electronic artistry like the Velvet Underground,” and so forth.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Don’t Let ‘Em Take Your Gun

On this day in 1975, Ted Nugent—currently on the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association (NRA)—was threatened by a gun while playing a concert in Spokane, Washington. An audience member by the name of David Gelfer raised a .44 magnum and pointed it at the rock star, but fortunately for the Nuge, police (and perhaps audience members, I’m not entirely clear) overpowered the gunman and stopped the possible murder. Gelfer was later charged with “intimidating with a weapon.”

John Lennon’s murder, on 8 December 1980, was still five years away. Lennon was murdered in America, where, according to the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Hence the right to bear arms is an unalienable right, as essential to the American way of life as money and automobiles. I support the Constitution, and have no wish to see it modified or altered. But I also recognize that all values and rights require sacrifices—as Emerson observed, “Nothing is got for nothing.” John Lennon’s murder was a terrible tragedy, but his death can be understood as a sacrifice to the American way of life.

He wasn’t the only figure associated with rock culture in America whose destiny became bound up with the gun. It is now widely accepted that Dylan’s motorcycle crash in July 1966, while it actually happened, was exaggerated in terms of its physical injury in order to allow Dylan to remove himself from public life—for his personal safety. In Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Al Kooper says as much, averring that he was afraid to tour with Dylan after 1965 because he didn’t want to play John Connelly to Dylan’s JFK. Thus the fear of being shot and killed by a deranged fan was a very real one, many years before the murder of John Lennon. I’ve been unable to find out whether David Gelfer’s gun was actually loaded—perhaps his gesture was merely an unfunny practical joke—but if it were loaded, Ted Nugent might have become the sacrificial victim that John Lennon later, not by choice, became.

The lives of many figures associated with rock music have ended by the gun: Sam Cooke (1964), Johnny Ace (1954), Arlester “Dyke” Christian (1971), Terry Kath (1978), Felix Pappalardi (1983), and Marvin Gaye (1984). The gun has also been used to achieve self-murder: Danny Rapp, of Danny and The Juniors, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1983. Country singer Faron Young also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (1996), and Wendy O. Williams, vocalist for the short-lived Plasmatics, killed herself with a gun in 1998. And famously, on 8 April 1994, Kurt Cobain was discovered having murdered a rock star with a gun, the closest one he could find: himself.

Some Wit and Wisdom of Ted Nugent (see the complete article here):

Ban guns? Don’t try it. The National Rifle Association, formed 138 years ago, is dedicated to the self-evident truth of self-defense.

With increased NRA memberships, with guns and ammo sales surging along with concealed weapons permits, never in the history of mankind have more people possessed more firepower.

Fortunately, this level of defenselessness is incomprehensible to about 100 million Americans who own guns.

Because of them, and the NRA, the lunatic fringe left touches the issue of gun control at its own political risk.

Fresh from escaping the tyranny and slavery [sic], our brilliant, sensible Founding Fathers wrote down the self-evident truth that the right to self-defense is God-given.

And write this down: To “keep” means it is mine. You can’t have it. To “bear” means I’ve got them right here on me.

“Shall not be infringed” echoes that beautiful “Don’t tread on me” chorus. Sing it.

Self-defense is the most powerful, driving instinct in good people everywhere. To deny it is evil personified.

All the evidence tells us that calling 9-1-1 is a joke. For those of us for whom self-defense is no joke, we’ll call 9-1-1 after we’ve defended our families. We’ll tell authorities to bring a dustpan and a mop to clean up the dead monster we just shot.

By comparison, here’s gun control a la Ted Nugent: Put the second shot through the same hole as the first shot.